UAF's first class of veterinary students makes history
June 6, 2019
At age three, Liz Millman knew she wanted to become a veterinarian. She fell in love with sled dogs at the age of seven, got her first dog sled at the age of 10, and owned her first husky by the time she was 13.
Now, not only is she a veterinarian, she also supervises a crew of about 40 people as the race return program director for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Millman is part of the first class of graduates from the collaborative veterinary program offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado State University.
“I didn’t get into vet school right away. Instead, I got a job in Alaska, working for DeeDee Jonrowe, who is a famous Iditarod musher,” she said. “I spent two years learning how to run sled dogs, how to race them, how to care for them, and living my dream. And then I found out that the University of Alaska Fairbanks was starting a vet school with Colorado State. I applied and, in 2015, began my first year of veterinary school.”
The collaborative veterinary training program allows 10 students to enroll each year, giving preference to Alaska residents. Students attend veterinary medicine courses at UAF for the first two years and at CSU for the last two years.
The program was established between the two land-grant universities to give students in Alaska access to a top-ranked veterinary medicine education partially in their home state, where veterinarians are in high demand. Additionally, the partnership gives CSU veterinary students an opportunity to learn about Alaska fish and wildlife, marine animal science, sports medicine and rehabilitation of sled dogs, and a variety of global public health challenges that involve environmental, human and veterinary medicine.
The program is a way for Alaska to grow its own veterinarians and for local clinics to make an investment in the future workforce. Dr. Barb Cole, a veterinarian and owner of the Fairbanks-based Aurora Animal Clinic, is one of the program's mentors.
Cole has been a guest lecturer for the veterinary medicine program and regularly hires students at the clinic. She and her family have also endowed a scholarship for first-and second-year vet students.
“I had such a positive experience, that we typically always have at least one student that we have hired throughout the school year for weekend work, with the option of working in the summer as well,” she said. “It’s a nice liaison with the university.”
Such partnerships play a vital role in expanding quality education opportunities.
“The local practitioners are great about providing opportunities for the students,” said Dr. Karsten Hueffer, one of the UAF faculty members. “The students work in the local clinics, gaining experience as well as establishing professional relationships with potential future employers.”
Jeff Varvil, associate manager of regional operations for the State of Alaska National Veterinary Associates, said partnering with UAF is especially rewarding because the support goes beyond helping students with schooling.
“We are interested in helping them find a career path and support them in finding a job,” he said. “We view them as more than just potential employees. We want them to join our professional family, and what better way to do it than to let them grow with us beyond their graduation.”
Having homegrown veterinarians also will be a boon to Alaska, where the long, dark winters and cold climate take some would-be residents by surprise.
“Hiring from the Outside is a challenge, because people might not know what they are getting into, with living in Alaska,” said Hueffer. “There is a lot of turnover.”
The new crop of Alaska-grown veterinarians may be the ideal solution for meeting this demand. Not only are they recipients of an education from one of the top-ranked programs in the country, most of them prefer to live in Alaska and serve the state in a variety of ways. Jed Harding, a former commercial fisherman and a new graduate of the program, would like to develop a mobile boat-based practice to serve villages.
Millman said unique opportunities like those are part of the attraction of practicing in the Last Frontier.
“After a month I knew Alaska was going to be home,” said Millman. “It’s pretty incredible to be graduating vet school and going back to Alaska to continue caring for these dogs and building a career.”